December 5, 2023
Code Red

Photo: CodePath

In 2017, Michael Ellison co-founded CodePath to focus on helping Black, Latino and Indigenous students from low-income and first-generation college backgrounds secure tech careers.


Code Red

Michael Ellison wants to change the way computer science is taught so everyone has a chance of landing high-paying tech jobs.

Nancy Dahlberg | 5/9/2023

The Entrepreneur

Michael Ellison, 38
CodePath, Miami

The Early Years

Michael Ellison grew up in a low-income, single-mother household in rural Maine. “I was not exposed to a lot of different opportunities or the best schools or best teachers.”

Still, he worked hard and was accepted into Boston University, where he took his first computer science course — but he wasn’t prepared. “My high school didn't offer AP CS (Advanced Placement computer science), and like thousands of students with the same background, I ended up dropping out of that first freshman CS course. I felt like I wasn't smart enough to major in computer science.”

Instead, he studied economics.

Being ambitious and passionate about social change, Ellison started his first non-profit at age 19, then others. “I became obsessed with how do you actually change the education system. We were small non-profits making a little bit of impact, and I was inspired by tech startups and how quickly they grew and had this outsized impact.”

That brought him to Silicon Valley, where he taught himself coding, began working with software engineers and was one of the co-founders of the customer data management startup Segment that was acquired for more than $3 billion by Twilio in 2020.

Leveling the Field

His is not the story that most people from similar backgrounds have, and that’s why in 2017 Ellison founded CodePath, a non-profit focused on helping Black, Latino and Indigenous students, primarily from low-income and first-generation college backgrounds, secure tech careers. “I got really lucky, but very importantly, I don't want default pathways to rely on luck. We exist to change the education system in a way that creates those advantages for students from similar backgrounds.”

Half of the nation's highest-paying jobs require computing degrees, he says. CodePath works as a layer on top of two- and four-year colleges and universities, providing curriculum, professors and student support. Because CodePath’s work is funded by grants and donations, the classes are free for students and schools.

CodePath’s offerings cover all college years, starting with preparing students for their first university-level computer science course, considered a weed-out class. And it does: 80% of Black and Latino students drop out of computer science between their freshman and sophomore year like he did, Ellison says. Blacks and Latinos make up 7% and 8%, respectively, of America’s tech workforce.

Other courses teach practical skills, such as how to build web and mobile applications. Some prepare students for interviews so they can land internships and jobs. To that end, CodePath partners with big tech employers, including Salesforce and Meta (Facebook). “We’re designed to bridge the gap between education and industry readiness — and the program meets students where they are.”

Miami Model

In the Miami area, CodePath has worked with more than 500 students, and 100 have already landed technical positions. Funded by the Knight Foundation and JPMorgan Chase, CodePath’s Miami work is targeted largely at three schools with large minority populations — Florida International University, Miami Dade College and Florida Memorial University. Programming is customized to school needs, and students earn college credit. CodePath courses are also available at 25 other universities and colleges in Florida, but its work in Miami, partnering with academic, civic and business leaders, could be a model nationally.

The company reaches 10% to 20% of computer science students in the Miami area but is building a plan to get to 100%. The non-profit is adding courses, building relationships that help students connect with local employers and is part of Tech Equity Miami, a countywide initiative.

‘Economic Mobility’

Nationally, CodePath has grown from serving 700 students in 2017 to 10,000 this year. About 20,000 CodePath students and alumni from 500 colleges now work at 2,000 companies. Graduates land full-time software engineering jobs paying well over $100,000. “That’s a world of difference for economic mobility,” Ellison says.

CodePath wants to help 100,000 students a year nationwide by 2030, Ellison says. “We want to have enough supply of students to diversify the nation's most competitive entry-level technical roles. We want to unlock the repeatable playbook and build the evidence to change how computer science programs operate in a way that is very centered on their low income, Black and Latino students, making sure that we flip the likelihood from being 80% likely to drop out to them being 80% likely to succeed.”

The Internship Advantage

Miami data show that students have a 70% chance of getting a high-paying tech job after graduating if they have one tech internship and can be nearly assured of securing a job with two, says Ellison, who moved to Miami in 2021 from Silicon Valley. “We have incredible stories where students have said their first internship paid more than the combined salaries of their mother and father. That's the tech opportunity.”

Argentina native and Florida International University alumna Antonella Avogadro says CodePath prepared her for getting two summer internships at her “dream company” Microsoft. After graduating last December, she joined Microsoft as a software engineer. Just 2% of U.S. tech jobs are held by Latinas.

Yunior Sanchez received a full scholarship to Florida Memorial University to play baseball while earning a bachelor's in computer science and an MBA. He credits CodePath’s technical interviewing course for helping him land a full-time job as a security engineer at Restaurant Brands International in Miami last year. He is creating an app to help his father in his Dominican Republic homeland run his fashion design business more efficiently.

Tags: Feature, NextGen

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